On Kristallnacht: A Lesson In What Happens When We Stop Looking Out For One Another

Jews under arrest being marched by the S.S. on their way to concentration camps.


By Abby Zimet
Common Dreams (11/9/18)

Today [11/9] marks the 80th Anniversary of , or Night of Broken Glass, the 1938 pogrom against German Jews that ignited the Holocaust. The night and day of terror – Jews killed, synagogues burned,  business destroyed, over 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps – marked a new stage in a Nazi extermination project that began, it’s vital to remember, not with The Final Solution but with slowly escalating hate-infused speech and actions aimed at making life so untenable for Jews they’d feel compelled to emigrate.

Crowds blithely mill as a synagogue burns.

“I remember my mother standing pale and crying…I remember her phoning her Gentile friends – she had more Gentile friends than Jewish friends. No answer. No one answered her.”

For years starting in 1933, through 1935’s infamous Nuremberg Laws and until 1938, a growing series of laws restricted the rights of Jews – to work, go to school, own property, run businesses, marry non-Jews, enter certain towns, be citizens of the Reich, have passports unless they were marked with “J” for Jude and otherwise live as full-fledged human beings. In October 1938, as hundreds of thousands of Jews were seeking asylum in other countries increasingly turning them away, Nazis brutally drove thousands of Jews with Polish citizenship across the border into abandoned stables – the first mass deportation of Jews.

On November 9 and 10, they went further in a pogrom billed by the Nazis as spontaneous – the pretext was the assassination of a German diplomat by a young Polish-Jewish exile – but in fact organized by Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi leaders. Overnight, 91 Jews were shot and beaten – others committed suicide – 1,400 synagogues were burned, and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed as police stood aside and many everyday Germans watched, as they did the next day when over 30,000 Jews were rounded up for concentration camps.

Enmity toward the “other”

After years of ever-more-brazen enmity toward the “other” in a country grown inured to it, Kristallnacht marked a deadly turning point – when it was “suddenly thinkable that murder might mutate into an end in itself” – and a vital moral test between conscience and complicity that too many Germans failed. In the echo chamber of today’s ugly political maelstrom, says the Jewish Labor Movement, the lesson resonates: “Challenge hate wherever and whenever you see it.” The lesson became clear to Elisheva Avital when she uncovered photos that had belonged to her grandfather, who fought in World War 2. Taken by Nazi photojournalists during Kristallnacht, they show – Warning: harrowing – Nazis setting fire to synagogues and rampaging through houses as terrorized residents stand in pajamas, dazed and bleeding. “You tell us ‘never again,'” writes Avital of both then and now. “I’m not so sure.”

Ferdinand Levy and his wife Rosa were among the almost 100 victims; both were beaten to death by Nazi street thugs.

Yad Vashem’s documenting of Kristallnacht, tellingly titled, “It Came From Within,” highlights an excerpt from the testimony of historian and Holocaust survivor Zvi Bacharach, ten years old at the time. German Jewry was “so much a part of German society that the Nazi blow hit it from within,” he writes, citing his parents’ belief that “there’s no way the Germans we live with will continue to do these things.” On Kristallnacht, “They couldn’t comprehend it…I remember my mother standing pale and crying…I remember her phoning her Gentile friends – she had more Gentile friends than Jewish friends. No answer. No one answered her.”

Link to Story


The Girl Who Witnessed Kristallnacht

Heart & Soul / BBC (11/9/18)

Ruth Winkelmann, daughter of a Jewish father, was just ten years old when she witnessed what later became known as crystal night: the night of 9th November 1938, when Jewish shops and synagogues all over Germany were smashed up and looted, and many Jews arrested or killed. It marked the beginning of the outright persecution of Germany’s Jews. Now 90, Ruth meets Caroline Wyatt to tell her what she remembers of that frightening night – and how it changed the course of her life.

Ruth’s memories of crystal night are vivid. When she arrived at her Berlin school the morning after, she found it barricaded by Nazi stormtroopers, who had also desecrated the nearby synagogue. The schoolgirls had to escape via the lofts of adjacent buildings. That evening, Ruth recalls, her father told her, “This is the beginning of a very difficult time.”

He was right. For Ruth, crystal night was the end of her carefree childhood. Her father and 14 other Jewish relatives were killed at Auschwitz, she herself and her mother survived in hiding.

The experience of crystal night and its aftermath shaped Ruth’s religious outlook profoundly. Brought up in the Jewish faith and considered Jewish by the Nazi regime, she later converted to Christianity out of gratitude to the man who had saved her. Today, she says, she has a strong faith in God and a deep sense of her Jewish roots.

Link to Story and 26-Minute Video